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To Be Muslim and American in L.A.

The King Fahad Mosque, located on Washington Boulevard in Culver City, is a gracefully domed structure with an imported marble facade, a 72-foot-high gold-leafed minaret and intricately painted Turkish tiles adorning the place both inside and out. The facility was completed in late August of 1999, funded by a donation from Prince Abdul-Aziz, the son of Saudi Arabia‘s ruler, King Fahad bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. I spent much of the past week there. The following snapshots are the result.

On the morning of September 11, Tajuddin Shuaib wakes up at 5:30, performs the first of his five daily prayers, then falls back to sleep. He wakes again just before 7 a.m., then, as is his habit, flips on the TV as he gets out of bed. He likes to watch CNN while he gets ready to go to work. For Tajuddin Shuaib this means driving to his office at the King Fahad Mosque, where he has been its director and spiritual leader -- or Imam, as he is called -- since the facility opened three years ago.

On normal days, Shuaib leaves his house around 7:30. But on September 11, like most Americans, Shuaib finds himself immobilized by shock at the images that are playing across his TV screen. Like most Americans, he exchanges frantic, disjointed phone calls with members of his congregation. Like most Americans, Shuaib prays for the safety of the people who might still be caught in the collapsing towers. But unlike most Americans, Shuaib also mouths a special prayer as he watches the expanding devastation: “Please don’t let a Muslim be responsible for this horror.”

“As an American,” he says later, “I was sick inside at what I saw. As a Muslim, I was scared to death.”

Shortly after 9 a.m., Shuaib finally drives to the mosque and sees some of his fears coming to pass. At the building‘s front, a 30-ish woman clutches an oversize Magic Marker with which she scrawls the word MURDERERS in huge letters on the white marble. When she spots Shuaib, she begins screaming. “Murderers! Go back where you came from, Palestinian murderers!”

While another mosque official calls the police, Shuaib attempts to talk the woman down. “Ma’am, look at me,” he says. “Do I look like a Palestinian?” The woman stops shouting long enough to stare at him. Shuaib is a black-skinned man who was born in Ghana. He is also humorous, intelligent and possessed of the charm of a natural storyteller. “It‘s true,” he continues, hoping the woman isn’t armed with anything worse than the marker, “Palestinians come to pray here. We also have Egyptians and Pakistanis and Arabs and Africans and Sudanese. The whole United Nations comes to pray here.” The woman starts to shout again, but Shuaib keeps on talking. “The thing is, I am as upset as you are because I have family in New York and I have not been able to speak to them. But I‘m also terrified because, unlike you, I can be a target.”

By the time the police arrive, Shuaib has talked the woman’s fury into remission. Nonetheless, the officers search her car and find cartons of eggs plus a pile of stones. They ask Shuaib if he wants to press charges. He shakes his head no. Her anger spent, the woman turns sheepish and asks if she should clean the wall.

“That‘s okay,” Shuaib says wearily. “We’ll clean it up ourselves.”

On Wednesday, the mosque‘s community liaison -- Usman Madha, who emigrated here from Burma 35 years ago -- is crossing the street when a car slows to a stop right in front of him and the driver motions him over. Madha approaches the car with trepidation. He recognizes the driver as a Culver City resident who, for the past three years, has been vocally opposed to the mosque’s presence in the community. But to Madha‘s surprise, the man only extends his hand to shake. “For whatever it’s worth,” he tells Madha tersely, “I don‘t hold you guys responsible for what happened in New York City.”

Later, Shuaib and Mahad continue to field a weird mixture of phone calls -- a few obscene messages, a few calls of support, and a couple of inquiries from the press. Most of the calls, however, are from worried congregation members who want to know if it’s safe to come to the mosque. The King Fahad Mosque is the primary Islamic center for L.A.‘s Westside, and typically draws a crowd for each of its five daily prayer services, plus upward of 500 worshipers for the big service at midday on Friday. But since last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, the place has been almost deserted.

Some mosque members have already had creepy experiences, and thoughts of this keep Madha up late Wednesday night. “It really got to me about 2 in the morning,” he says. “I said to myself, I thought we left all this behind to come to this great land where we are allowed to build our mosque and pray and practice. Now suddenly we have to defend our place of worship. It‘s just incredible. Incredible.”

Around midmorning, a member of the congregation named Yousuf Shakoor arrives to meet with Shuaib. Originally from Pakistan, Shakoor is a slender, intense man who now operates a profitable business in telephone calling cards from his offices in downtown L.A. He’s here today because he wants to talk to the Imam about setting up a Red Cross blood drive at the mosque. “A lot of people want to give blood, but they‘re afraid to go to the blood banks,” says Shakoor. “The women feel especially vulnerable because of their head coverings. My wife had an appointment with the doctor yesterday, but she didn’t go because we thought something could happen.”

Shakoor‘s voice is filled with emotion as he spills out the problems he’s already encountered. “Some people I work with who know I am Pakistani called me yesterday and said, ‘Are you happy?’ And I said, ‘Are you stupid?’” Shakoor shakes his head. “Until now, I‘ve been scared to go out from my office. I haven’t even been to the mosque. But finally I said, ‘Okay, today I have to go and tell the Imam that we will organize a blood drive.’ I told him, ‘We’re also gonna put big banners outside here so everyone will understand that we feel terrible pain about everything too.‘”

Shuaib thinks that in a week or two the worst feelings against Muslims will die down. But Usman Madha is not so optimistic. “Pearl Harbor took place in 1941,” he says. “And Americans still talk about it like it happened last week. What happened in New York is bigger than Pearl Harbor. So will generations and generations of Americans look at us with hatred?” He frowns at the floor. “What these lunatic terrorists don’t realize is, they may have damaged American Muslims for generations.”

Madha is convinced that if something bad is going to happen, it will begin on Friday, when people start to let off steam for the weekend.

On the morning of Friday, September 14, it looks as if Usman Madha may have been right. A mosque official arrives around 8:15 a.m. and finds a suspicious manila envelope sitting on the steps at the building‘s front door. To be on the safe side, he calls the police, who tell him they believe the package is a letter bomb. By 9 a.m. a dozen Culver City cops have shut down Washington Boulevard for two blocks in each direction while they wait for the county Sheriff’s bomb squad to arrive. The bomb squad pulls up at 9:30 to disarm the “bomb.” After a few minutes, the crisis is over. The manila envelope does not contain explosives. Instead, it‘s crammed with handwritten notes and drawings from local children who want to express their support for the people of the King Fahad Mosque.

When people begin to arrive for the 1 p.m. prayer service, there’s a lighter feeling in the air. As promised, Yousef Shakoor has ordered four huge banners that now drape from the front and sides of the building shouting messages of grief and solidarity: OUR HEARTS AND PRAYERS ARE WITH THE VICTIMS‘ FAMILIES . . . WE ARE PROUD OF NY FIREFIGHTERS, NYPD, MEDICAL PERSONNEL & ALL GOVERNMENT PERSONNEL . . . AMERICAN MUSLIMS STAND BEHIND PRESIDENT BUSH.

The banners have lifted Shakoor’s own spirits. “I came from Pakistan in ‘88,” he says, “but I didn’t feel like a real American until 1995. That‘s when I got married and brought my wife here. Now I have three children, who were all born in California.”

The Culver City police are also visible presences around the building as worshipers file in, men and boys through the front door, women and girls through the side. The women all wear loose, long-sleeved clothing, mostly dyed in dark colors. But a few have tried for red, white and blue.

Imam Shuaib delivers a sermon that is one part sorrow for the tragedies, one part comfort for Muslims who fear being marked for retaliation, one part lecture filled with hellfire and brimstone to make clear to any and all within earshot that the Koran condemns the events that took place on September 11. “Allah will not accept the repentance of a man or woman who intentionally kills an innocent,” Shuaib thunders. “Those who killed those people in the World Trade Center are not martyrs! . . . They will never be given the keys to paradise! . . . They will dwell in hellfire forever!”

As Shuaib speaks, the male worshipers sit along the carpets that are spread on the first floor of the mosque, while the women listen from a balcony on the mosque’s second floor. Near the sermon‘s end, a man wearing traditional Muslim garb lurches to his feet and stalks toward Shuaib, roaring with fury. The Imam is perverting the meaning of Islam with his words, he yells. Jews, Christians and nonbelievers should not be in this mosque! It’s a desecration.

There is a near scuffle as Usman Madha blocks the heckler‘s advance and the man shakes him off with a violent motion. By then others move to subdue the troublemaker. Shuaib invites the man to come to the front of the mosque to express his opinions peaceably, but he refuses. Eventually the man is ushered out the front door without further incident.

Yet the outburst has changed the mood. “That should never have happened,” says Usman Madha unhappily. “Especially not with guests.” Among the guests are the deputy mayor of Culver City, and a Jewish woman who came “to help the cause of religious freedom.” But as the visitors head to their cars, Muslims rush to convince them that they are welcome here, that one hothead doesn’t speak for the rest of the congregation.

As a new week begins, the national news is full of probable war; the FBI is investigating 40 incidents of violence driven by hatred against Muslims; at the Muslim Public Affairs Council in downtown L.A., the hate-crimes hot line still fills up with daily messages. But life at the King Fahad Mosque, while not exactly back to normal, is finally laden with more healing than harm. A former military man, a non-Muslim, finds himself sobbing in Shuaib‘s office for fear that the U.S. government will resort to internment camps. “Don’t cry. That‘s not going to happen,” Shuaib assures the man. By Monday night, it seems that hope has trumped worry, at least for a while.

On Tuesday, the hostile calls have abated, and Usman Madha is in genuinely good spirits when he leaves the mosque in the evening. “People always ask how to pronounce my first name,” he says. “I used to tell them it doesn’t matter. Oosman, Usman, Osman. Whatever. But from now on maybe I should tell them it‘s U.S. Man. You like that? I think it’s good,” he says, his tone suddenly almost giddy. “Okay, from now on, that‘s who I am. U.S. Man.”